The allied soldiers have already made a beach landing to the coast and the village was in state of panic. The Gallian pride was not interested in being part of the war, but it seems that the war had come home. News of the Emperor’s soldiers forced into a rout came first as hearsay from passing travellers, then the deserters started dragging their boots through the forest. Humans didn’t have the tenacity of those born of the beast, but these fighting men seemed already dead on the inside. Their eyes cold, their spirit gone.

Even worse were reports coming from their closest neighbours in the coastal town- the invading soldiers were weary, ill disciplined and worst of all men. They did the most abominable things to their womenfolk. Even though the Gallians knew they had the blood of the beast in their veins, the real monsters were clad in men’s clothing. The allied troops were pillaging and distorting the very landscape of their ancestral land, desecrating the oldest trees for firewood and wearing the very fur of their kin as trophies.

So the elders bid only men and women of full Gallian mastery to remain to fend off the invaders. This was their forest, their village, their home.  In times of distress, the eldest female Dranna was the strongest voice, she shifted first, as it was her honour- her face pushing into full feline glory as her human pupils lengthened into slits and her fangs grew long, with a long Caterwaul she called the pride to war.  It was a dramatic sight as every adult stripped off their homespun and morphed into their beast manifestation: Some into werecat forms- cat head and human arms to wield whatever weapons that was available. Those who favoured their talons went onto their fours, fully embracing the beast. Even the deserters were temporarily emboldened by such a communal display of defiance and courage.

Dranae, the eldest girl, old enough to have manifested the cat-eyes of her people’s lineage was tasked with bringing the children into the hills, away from the bloodshed that was inevitable to come. But it was too late. The sounds of gunfire and the ferocious growls of their families was raucous as the children were merely an hour into their escape. To compound their desperation, a truck-full of soldiers cut off their only route to the safety of the foilage.

The young Gallians had no choice but to scramble up the slopes of the forbidden hill. This was the very place where Dranna would tie livestock in offering once a season to the hidden spirits of the wild. No transgressor, Gallian or human has ever ventured up the hill and returned. Dranae reassured the children. She told the youngest that they were innocent and their ties with the land would save them. But the Soldiers pursued them relentlessly, hooting with glee, some with crazed lust in their eyes. Others intoxicated.  Felina, one of the younger girls was caught by the ankle by a soldier. She hissed and struggled as the evil men tore her clothes. But she had no talons to maul them, and no fangs to rip out their throats. Even so, she was far too young to be mated with. One of the men, apparently their leader from his bigger muscles and longer hair gestured a pistol at Dranae- “Stop!” and he fired a shot in the air. There were 17 girls and 10 boys in Dranae’s care, all of which were stunned, crying or peeing in fear. Dranae was stoic. She was the eldest now, she had to save her village’s young, or die trying.

They were far enough up the forbidden hill to be enveloped in mist. Thankfully, as it spared the children the sight of the evil men beginning their horrible acts. However, Felina’s screams heightened as one of the men’s silhouettes climbed atop her. The Soldiers leader made his inexorable advance towards Dranae. His boots crunching hard on gravel and labyrinthine roots that covered the hills steep sides. His hand clenched white-knuckled on his pistol with the barrel trained on her, his other arm hauling his brute of a body nearer and nearer. Dranae crouched low into a fighting stance she practiced in happier times, sparring with her sisters. She will not allow this coward to claim her chastity, real men fought with tooth and claw and not with a craven weapon that could injure at a hundred paces. She would rather be mated with a true Gallian warrior who would overpower her in combat and look her in the eye...  not with this filth.  Dranae’s whole world was coming to a standstill as she began a long girl-like throat howl, as she had not the means to caterwaul yet. But a flicker in the corner of her narrowed vision broke her focus. A root, or was it a lizard?

The leader’s hand was missing. His mouth agape as he stared stupefied at the bloody stump pumping thin arterial sprays where his hand- and gun- were just seconds ago. Moments later, a lightning fast appendage ripped his head and spinal column out. And then the carnage began. Dranae fell to her elbows in shock.

The children could barely see a warped tree-like shape lumbering in the mist. It summarily lashed out at the soldiers with multi-jointed limbs topped with wickedly tipped human fingers. It dismembered each man, then drew him close to its main shadowy bulk, before a horrific sucking sound drowned out hysterical screams. One by one the men were systematically butchered. Felina emerged from the mist, crawling to safety, her naked form soaked in blood. Eventually the tree-thing dragged the final soldier into its main mass and instead of the sucking sound, the tree moved disturbing rapidly away into the mist, its last victim shouting a litany of fear in its wake.

Days passed. The village was nearly completely flattened, all the elders lay slain alongside the ripped carcasses of the invaders. It wasn’t clear who had the upper hand in the fighting. Dranae and the children had the heavy task of putting their parents to rest. And on the first day of spring, she knew what to do as the surviving eldest Gallian. She brought a tremendous offering of rabbits and fruits of the forest to the Forbidden hill. Up she climbed, pulling her offering along until she found the spot where the children were saved, still stained a dark red from the horror. She tied her gifts to a root and turned back only to hear an ominous creak. Turning around slowly, the black, twisted tree loomed directly in front of her. It was both of flesh and wood, one texture melting into another. And in the center of its trunk, what appeared to be a bole was a single, unblinking eye. Its appendages undulated menacingly around it like a halo of worms and impossibly jointed arms. Dranae could not hope to outrun the creature. And knelt, accepting her fate as an appropriate sacrifice. However, the swift death she expected didn’t arrive.

A dry cracking sound from the creature’s trunk seemed to reveal a lump. Dranae squinted and found that the roots at her feet were conveying her forward. Again Dranae expected to be subjected to a loud sucking sound, however the motion paused when she got to the base of the entity. One of the soldiers was spread eagled under the twisted tree, the top half of his head and tips of his fingers visible under the mass of roots. His veins were black, as if the tree was slowly absorbing his sleeping form. And then the impossible happened. The crack in the center of the tree revealed a squirming mass roughly the size of a sack of potatoes. Dranae was apprehensive until a circular hole cracked through the mass, and a baby’s cry was heard. As Dranae scrambled forward, she noticed bizarre fruit on the tree resembled half formed embryos, some were just dried up vestiges with barely a head, others had fully formed feet but no upper torso. Dranae managed to utter “please... may I”? as the tree extruded the crying lump further out.  She peeled off the layer of bark, dirt and viscera to reveal a healthy baby girl. With a tug, the baby was freed from its gory sac, however an umbilicus still connected it to the tree. The baleful eye was staring down at Dranae as a lightning fast limb severed the cord, spraying sap and blood onto the Gallian. The child opened its eyes for the first time and saw its new mother. When Dranae got up, the tree had already scrambled into some unknowable place.

Six years later, when the ship arrived in the rebuilt village. An elder in Gallian beast form emerged from this shiny vessel to greet the leader of the village, Dranae. The villagers learnt that the war had ended in a stalemate between the Empire and the allies. Men from the stars had intervened to draw all of humanity back into the fold- their planet was just one out of many that were long lost to the greater part of their civilization.

Dranae was elated to learn that there were kin from such faraway places and that all of her people were part of an even bigger tribe: The Incarnates. They came with many gifts- crops that could bear fruit in any season, information on the full scope of their Gallian heritage including disciplines above and beyond those anything Dranna bestowed on their bravest and lastly the cures to many ailments and diseases. The Incarnates that emerged from the ship were incredible- Dranae met the visiting elder’s colleagues: An elder of another beast form- A reptile, like a dragon! And the other, a wolf. The visitors revelled in her fascination, but a grave seriousness fell as one of the doctors came to speak to them. Her adopted daughter, Raamaa, was of great interest.

Dranae sat down with the three Incarnate elders and spoke of the tale of the tree and how they have never seen or found it since. The elders ordered a search, but too found no trace of this black creature. A whispered “...abomination” was overheard between the visitors as they explained that such a creature could only be a perversion of their heritage. And her daughter, could very well be a threat to the welfare of their entire pride. And with great sadness, Dranae released Ramaa into care of the visitors. They explained that there were further tests to be done with more advanced instruments and that they will return before the next season.

It was not months but a decade later that Dranae saw the ship landing. By then, her village had burgeoned into a city with major improvements with infrastructure. Her people now had access to the information Grid, their children fiddling with gadgets bought from traders. Automated schools and libraries now educated a new generation. Walking regally to the ship, Dranae was exhilarated to be reunited with her daughter after an eternity of silence from the incarnate representatives on the topic. But what greeted her was not the young playful girl she raised, but a confident woman, garbed in outlandish clothes. Raamaa was grown up.

Raamaa rejected her mother’s offer for a feast, and instead opted for a quiet meal with her. Dranae was worried- Raamaa seemed wholly human. And her lineage genes should have activated on her 16th birthday. Did the Incarnate elders opt to suppress her Becoming, with the knowledge of her biological parent’s condition? Raamaa held her mother’s hand and wept: Her genes only had one specific trigger point. She was loathe to tell her mother point blank, and opted to explain her discoveries in the capital: Raamaa’s genetics qualified her to be a member of the progressive class, the ruling class of the entire Incarnate collective, higher than the Adapt class which consisted of anamorphic adapted humans such as the Anubians or her mother’s people, the Gallians. She was the inheritor of an incredibly rare genotype- the direct offspring of one of the collective’s founders, Virachai; her true family being the Vorachai clan. Dranae’s heart fell. She knew of the lore of the Vorachai... those that consume. Their mere touch was death. And looking down, she found her daughter had grown a multitude of fleshy tendrils into her hand.